Stress: signals, management, & warning signs
There is a fairly common notion that if your dog is fearful and you comfort him, you are “reinforcing the fear” and thereby making it harder for the dog to conquer this fear. This, however, is not really the case, and likely stems from misunderstanding the difference between emotions (under very little, if any, conscious control) and learned responses (under variable conscious control) to particular situations.
In the February 2019 issue of the Whole Dog Journal, Linda P. Case has an article on comforting your dog when it is scared and she uses this analogy to illustrate an emotional response:
“I am petrified of clowns, like most rational adult humans (right?!). Everything about them is creepy to me – their red bulbous noses, crazy orange hair, ridiculous cartoon-sized shoes – all of it!
So, let’s imagine that my front doorbell rings and outside is the guy pictured above, grinning and giving me two big thumbs-up. Responding to my shrieks, my husband Mike comes running and attempts to calm me. (In reality, Mike would be bolting out of the back door with the dogs, yelling “Save Yourself”!)
For the sake of my anecdote, let’s say he’s hanging tough and comforting me.
Would Mike’s comfort cause my clown fear to increase? Of course not! Nothing can make me more fearful of clowns! Instead, it’s reasonable to assume that having someone talk to me calmly, explaining to me that clowns are not dangerous (yeah, right!) will reduce my anxiety.”
In fact, “[t]here is absolutely no evidence, not one bit, suggesting that providing comfort and security to a distressed dog causes the dog’s anxiety or fear to increase.” (WDJ, emphasis mine.) So, why do we think that comforting our dogs will make the situation worse for them? It probably has to do with avoidance behaviors that a dog may do to help reduce his fear or anxiety. Ms Case continues:
“Stress, anxiety, and fear are emotional responses. We do not choose to be anxious or fearful; we actually have very little control over these responses.
Conversely, any behaviors that someone uses to successfully escape or avoid fear-inducing situations are operant; we have some control over these. If these behaviors are successful – in that they lead to a reduction in anxiety and fear – they will indeed be reinforced. This is called avoidance learning and happens when fleeing a fear-producing experience results in a reduction of fear.”
In other words, if putting some distance between me and the thing that scares me (in my case snakes) reduces my fear, then I have learned something and the next time a snake crosses my path, I will head for the hills. In theory, since I learned that this works to reduce my anxiety, I have a degree of control over it, but in reality, it would take a truly Herculean effort for me to make myself hang around any snake.
“Dogs, of course, also learn this way. For example, a dog who is nervous around unfamiliar people may hide behind the couch whenever someone new enters her home…[H]iding allows the dog to avoid exposure to new people and results in an abatement of her fear…
Avoidance learning is not the same as “reinforcing fear.” It’s important to remember that anxiety and stress and fear are basic emotional responses that are involuntary and have important biological functions. Our dogs do not choose to be anxious or fearful. These are reactions to situations that a dog perceives to be unfamiliar or threatening. It is false to state that a dog chooses or willingly decides to experience fear. However, this is exactly what is implied when owners are advised to ignore their dog when he is anxious or fearful due to the erroneous belief that comforting will reinforce the dog’s fear.” (Emphasis mine).
Ms. Case goes on to cite two studies that looked at whether or not comforting a dog in a stressful situation will reduce the dog’s stress levels. In one study the dogs were tested in two ways. In one part the dogs were petted by their owners for one minute in the presence of a friendly stranger, and in the other part the dogs were not petted. The leash was then handed to the stranger and the owner moved out of site for 3 minutes. The results of the experiment were not dramatic, but they did find that the “petting scenario resulted in significantly longer periods of calm behaviors exhibited by the dogs while they were separated from their owner, compared to the no petting scenario (38 seconds versus 11 seconds of calm behavior, respectively).”
“The results of this pilot study suggest that, when dogs are subjected to a mildly stressful situation such as a short separation from their owner, gentle petting prior to the separation can promote reduced feelings of stress and calmer behaviors. While this is not earth-shattering stuff, it is a nice bit of evidence showing that providing comfort and a secure base to our dogs is a good thing and not something to be discouraged.”
So, when your dog is feeling nervous or anxious, it is reasonable and appropriate to offer comfort (and some distance) in the presence of the scary thing. Petting, food, reassuring words, are ways in which you can help your fearful dog. Changing his emotional response to something that scares him is the first step in changing his behavior to his nemesis. Next time, we will look at what you can do to teach your dog that the clown at the front door is not necessarily something to run away from.
Anxiety is something that everyone experiences at one time or another, to one degree or another. Perhaps when you had to give an oral book report in front of your 6th grade class, or your first presentation to a new boss, or when you were waiting for a loved one to get out of surgery. Often times, others don’t even know you are anxious as you devote every resource to making yourself appear fine (at least outwardly), while praying that no one asks you to something as unreasonable as multiply 6 times 8.
You may have tells, such as biting your lip, twirling your hair, pacing, or tapping your foot, that people may or may not recognize as symptoms of stress or anxiety. When I was a kid, my mother, assuming I was bored rather than anxious, would tell me to “Stop figeting!” My sister on the other hand, would get quiet and withdrawn, earning her the title of the “Good Kid.”
I have written (and podcasted*) about stress signals and the importance of recognizing your dog’s particular behaviors that indicate he is not comfortable. Learning to read your dog and understanding the way in which he communicates his discomfort is the first step in helping him with his anxieties or fears. But, that is just the beginning. What do you do when you see Rover is uncomfortable with the situation?
The first thing I recommend is physical distance. For example, if your dog is uncomfortable with large dogs and you see a great hulking beast headed your way, don’t insist that your dog meet his fears head on. Instead, add enough distance so that your dog can watch Sasquatch go by without overreacting. Give him lots of tasty treats as the dog goes by so that he is focused on you, rather than his fears.** This teaches him that the presence of dogs means I should look to my person for assistance. Moreover, because good things now happen to him when scary dogs come by, he will begin to look forward with anticipation (rather than fear) to big dogs.
I am frequently asked if I am rewarding the dog’s fear by giving him treats when he is scared. My question in return is: When you are scared, does it help to have someone comfort you, offer you something else to focus on and give you a reason to not be so afraid? With our dogs, we are trying to change their emotional responses from fear to anticipation. When we offer them treats, the chewing and eating helps to not only distract them from the menace, but it also makes them happy. And, it is very very hard to be both happy and afraid at the same time.
So, what do you do when a big dog appears out of nowhere, and you have no room to move away? This is where you need to give your dog mental distance from the situation. Take a fistful of treats (yes, an actual fistful, this is no time to skimp!), and put your hand right at your dog’s nose! (Your hand needs to be touching his nose, not 6 inches in front of it.) This should get your dog’s attention and now you pick up the pace and move as quickly as possible away from the situation, all the while keeping the treats right at your dog’s nose. When you get a reasonable distance from the distraction, give your dog 3-4 of the treats in your hand, tell him he’s good boy, and resume your walk.
If you really cannot move your dog away from the problem, try to position yourself in front of your dog, blocking (or at least partially blocking) his view of the dog. Stay calm and keep the treats close to his head, feeding him one at a time as the other dog moves away. As soon as you can add physical distance, do so, treating him as needed to keep his focus on you.
Keep in mind that it is far better to get your dog away from a situation that will cause him anxiety, fear, or to overreact, than it is to try and force him to deal with his fears in an unexpected and distressing situation. By adding physical distance before he reacts, or using food to lure him or encourage him to focus on you and forgetting the scary thing over there, you will be teaching him skills that will make his life (and yours) easier.
If, however, your dog is consistently overreactive to a particular thing, such as other dogs or people, or he seems to be getting worse, then consider hiring a positive reinforcement trainer who is experienced with fearful dogs. Using a controlled setting that allows him to learn, without being overwhelmed by his anxieties will help Fido get over his fears, as well as boost his confidence. When your dog can negotiate difficulties without fear, stress, or anxiety, then he will see that the world is a happy and safe place to be.
*In pretty much every podcast Colleen Pelar and I discuss stress signals in dogs, so it is hard to make a specific recommendation for which one to listen to. Thus, I heartily recommend that you start at the beginning, listen to every one, subscribe, and write a wonderful review on iTunes. But, that’s just a suggestion…
**If your dog will not take any treats, then you are probably too close to the thing which scares him and you need to add some more distance.
And, alternatively, if your dog is toy rather than food motivated, have a tug toy or squeaky toy in your pocket to use as a distraction when the scary thing comes by. There’s nothing like a good game of tug to keep your mind off that which scares you.
Christmas is coming and you want to give your best buddy a special gift and make his Christmas fun and stress free. Over the years I have written and podcasted about great products as well as simple ways of helping your pet have the best Christmas holiday ever.
First, here are somethings you can do to make sure your dog’s holidays are as stress free as possible.
Making Happy Dogs Happier (Low cost ways to improve your dog’s life.)
Helping Your Dog on Halloween Night (Yes, Halloween is long gone, but in this episode we discuss how to tell if your dog is enjoying, tolerating, or trying to end an interaction, and strategies for making holidays more enjoyable for your dog.)
And secondly, here are some things that might brighten up your dog’s life:
It’s been a great year for A Positive Connection as well as Your Family Dog and I am looking forward to continuing to serve you and your dogs next year. Have a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
Reisner Veterinary Services posted this article from Silent Conversations, a website dedicated to “Insights into Canine Communication,” about sniffing the ground and what it might indicate about doggie discourse.
Although I have paid attention to sniffing in dogs, I have been watching it more closely lately as I recently read The Education of Will, by Dr Patricia McConnell. At one point she talks about noticing the constancy and intensity of Will’s sniffing and how it concerned her in such a young dog. So, I was delighted to see the article from Silent Conversations which explained and reinforced my own observations about something that all dogs do, but may do differently at different times. Knowing when your dog is just checking the pee-mail and when he is sniffing as a way to diffuse a potentially tense situation can help you keep Fido relaxed and manageable.
Martha Knowes, the author of the blog says this by way of introduction:
Sniffing can be used as a calming signal when an interaction is too intense. One dog may start to walk away, slowly sniffing the ground; the other dog may mirror him by also sniffing the ground. This is a good way to defuse an interaction.
Sniffing can be used as negotiation as two dogs approach each other; a deliberate slower approach is polite when greeting. Sniffing the ground is commonly used as part of the body language signals offered at the beginning stages of an approach.
In other contexts, sniffing could also be interpreted as displacement behaviour or a stress response. A dog may feel conflicted about something he sees ahead of him; he may slow down and stop to sniff the environment. Sniffing may help displace the anxiety, and it gives the opportunity to assess things further from a safe distance by stalling the approach.
She continues by giving several examples of where you might see unusual sniffing and clearly describes not only the situation, but the body language that might accompany the sniffing. I really appreciated the use of common scenarios as well as the straight-forward, precise language used to describe canine body language. Even without accompanying pictures, I could clearly envision the dog she was describing.**
Ms. Knowles also adds a good section on what she means by stress. The paragraph is worth repeating in its entirety:
When I mention stress, this does not necessarily imply negative emotion. I mean stress in the physiological sense. So certain body language signals can mean the dog is feeling some sort of emotional discourse. This discourse could range from positive to negative emotion. Both excitement and fear could have similar effects on the body, with various hormones being released and activating the sympathetic nervous system. The dog may be feeling uncomfortable/fearful or it could also be excited about something. When analyzing stress in body language, it is worth noting the frequency and intensity of the various body language signals.
The last part of the article is a good reminder that when you are looking at body language it is important to describe what you see the animal doing, the immediate surroundings, and if there is anything that has changed in the environment (did something make a noise, is there a stranger dog approaching, or a person jogging?), rather than immediately interpreting the meaning of the behavior. For example, if you see a dog stop, close his mouth, look away, lower his tail, and squint his eyes, it could be that he saw a dog that he didn’t know, or a car backfired, or there was a strange smell. He might be slowing his approach to a strange dog, startled by a sound, or repelled by the smell. These are descriptions of the behavior and not emotional interpretations of the dog’s inner workings.
In Ms Knowles words:
To offer an unbiased interpretation of the body language, observe and take note of the situation, taking into account the dog’s whole body, the body language signals, and environment first before offering an interpretation. List all the body language you see in the order that it occurs; try to be as descriptive as possible without adding any emotional language. For instance, saying a dog looks happy is not descriptive and would be seen as an interpretation rather than an observation.
The more you know about your dog and her individual signals, including the more subtle ones such as sniffing, the better you will be able to protect and serve your best dog friend.
**Note: she does include links to other articles which describe the dog’s perspective on things, or elucidate a particular aspect of canine body language, such as the head turn. All of her links are worth reading.
Reisner Veterinary Services posted a link on their Facebook page on November 19, showing a video of three different dogs, two of which are being hugged by small children. For those of us who work with dogs this is a very scary video as the first two dogs are clearly stressed by what is happening and the third dog is being put into a situation that can quickly escalate into a bite to the child’s face. Here is a link to the page they reference (the post is dated 11/10/16 and titled, “Do you have a child who likes to hug the dog”):
And here are Reisner’s thoughts on the videos:
1. Hugging is NOT a positive interaction for many, many dogs. If an individual dog does seem to enjoy it, it is usually a learned behavior, and may be tolerated from only certain people. Generally speaking, children are less tolerated than adults. If you look closely at a dog’s face while being hugged, you’re more likely to see stress than pleasure.
2. It’s clear from videos like this that knowledge about dog safety is lacking. It’s doubtful that this is a deliberate attempt to put toddlers at risk. We need to press on and educate the public. I also need to remind myself that the great majority of parents are not connected to progressive dog groups and pages on Facebook, and have absolutely no idea of the risk.
3. Most dog bite injuries that end up in emergency rooms are to young children, in the head, face and neck. It’s very easy to see why.
Just because a dog IS tolerant and patient doesn’t mean the dog needs to be confronted with such aversive interactions (including the infant tapping a toy on the dog’s head). The dogs here are just being set up to fail. Why tempt fate?
I couldn’t agree more with Reisner’s comments. I would add that there are plenty of good sites online that educate parents about appropriate interactions between kids and dogs. Here are some of my blogs as well as my favorite online sites:
And here are some great websites with terrific advice and resources for parents:
Kids and dogs can live harmoniously, but it requires supervision of small people, an understanding of stress signals in dogs, and respect for the needs of both children and canines.
It’s time, once again, for a hodgepodge of items that I have recently encountered. These tidbits are related by four components: 1) I like them, 2) they are all about positive approaches to training and interacting with your dog, 3) Reisner Vet likes them and, 4) I was not smart enough to write them first.
The first is the Freedom Harness Exchange Program.
The Harness Exchange Program is an advocacy program of Biggies Bullies that promotes the use of force-free pet equipment. We are asking pet guardians o swap out their choke, prong, and shock collars for a free harness! We want all pets and their parents to experience the huge advantages and long-lasting effectiveness of force-free training and pet care. When you mail us your choke, prong, or shock collar we will send you a free Freedom No Pull Harness. -Biggies Bullies Website.
The page is filled with pictures of adorable “bully” breed dogs happily ensconced in their bright colored freedom harnesses. The beauty of any no-pull harness is that it works with your dog to stop pulling, rather than punish or hurt your dog for pulling. Choke chain collars can damage your dog’s thyroid, increase the pressure in his eyes (putting him at greater risk for glaucoma), and can cause damage to the trachea or esophagus. “Dogs walked on prongs are also constantly subjected to pain and discomfort, which creates fear, anxiety and aggression on walks.” (Biggies Bullies Website). Dogs corrected with shock collars may associate the pain and fear they experience with their owners and may respond by avoiding their owners, shutting down, or acting out aggressively.*
I have used the Freedom harness as well as other front buckling no pull harnesses and I highly recommend them. They are the most effective, however, when used in conjunction with positive reinforcement training to teach a dog loose leash walking. I think this is a great program and if you want to support it, click here to donate.
Another article that I came across came from my old standard Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services is dated June 6th and has a wonderful graphic by Lili Chin, titled Calm and Relaxed? or Shut Down? What I love about this is that it points out how important it is to understand dog body language so you know what your dog is actually telling you! Dogs who are subdued when meeting new people, places, things, or other dogs, may not be calm and relaxed, but rather shut down and scared. Understanding how your dog is interpreting the situation will give you the information you need to best help him.**
While scrolling through Lili Chin’s website I found some graphics that she produced for the Vet Behavior Team about stress signals in dogs. Going to their website, I found several handouts that clearly and precisely illustrate the signals that dogs use to communicate to us that they are upset, stressed, hyper-vigilante, or just plain scared. Even if you know your dog’s stress signals, I recommend that you take a look at these handouts as they will help you recognize stress signals in other dogs. Knowing what other dogs are “feeling” will help you to keep your dog safe. I plan on using these handouts with all my clients!
I have written about dogs and kids before, but recently I came across this website: Family Paws Family Education which I really like. It has a lot of useful information for parents, parents-to-be, trainers, and veterinarians to help kids and dogs live together in harmony. The resource page has plenty of links to other valuable resources (such as Living with Kids and Dogs , Colleen Pelar’s website) as well as some terrific handouts with nice graphics about Dog and Baby safety, Dog and Toddler safety, what is supervision (and isn’t! This is a particularly eye-opening handout). I recommend to parents that they post the relevant ones on the frig so they are a ready reminder of how to have your expanding household live together positively and safely.
**The article to which this graphic is attached is a detailed look at Cesar Milan and his television program concerning a Boston Terrier who attacked and killed pigs, and Mr. Milan’s approach to changing this behavior. I am no fan of Mr. Milan and the methods he employed here just about made me pass out and/or vomit. His outdated approach caused egregious harm to the health and mental well being of the dog as well as the pigs he employed. I cannot emphasize loud or long enough that bullying, hurting, or punishing your dog is not the humane, responsible way to change behavior, no matter how abhorrant that behavior may be. Every animal deserves to be cared for and handled with compassion and dignity. Period.
Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services, has once again provided the basis for a blog post. Their Facebook post from January 11, 2016 is a terrific summary of why dogs have bad training days and what you can do about it. Here it is, with my notes or comments in italics or with asterisks:
Tuesday’s Pearl: Dogs can be overwhelmed by training.
Training your dog to perform a new task can be gratifying, especially when your dog really seems to ‘get it’. Doing it well requires knowledge of operant conditioning*, finding the right positive reinforcer** for the individual dog in front of you, and keeping expectations in check as you approximate the task being trained. But dogs are only human; like us, they can have bad training days for a number of reasons.
Overwhelmed or confused dogs may begin to exhibit conflict signals such as yawning, turning away or lowering their bodies.*** Others may show displacement behaviors such as barking, jumping up or mouthing, mounting, stretching or simply walking away. To the untrained trainer’s eye, this might look like “stubborn” or even “dominant” behavior, but it is more simple than that (and it is never an issue of dominance). She doesn’t know what you want, and is frustrated or no longer willing to cooperate in this futile activity. (Emphasis mine.).
In most cases, the dog is being asked to perform/offer a behavior beyond his understanding. This is often the case in training, of course, but if you’re working on a complex behavior and skipping the smaller steps, the dog may simply stop working. A few tips to help him get back on track:
• Go back a few steps in training and move forward more slowly. (Also consider training in smaller increments of time, say 5-10 minutes at a time. This will help both of you to avoid frustration).
• Break the training down into smaller steps. (Think in terms of parts of a behavior. For example, if you want your dog to sit when greeting guests, start with teaching your dog to sit, then sit at your side. Then teach him to stay while at your side. Then stay while you move away, stay while you move to the door, stay while the door opens, etc., until you have built a complete behavior).
• Take a day or two to review and reinforce what the dog already knows well.
• Give your dog time to think – your own impatience may be undermining his ability to learn. A little breather between steps can give your dog the chance to offer something he’s figured out for himself. (I remind my students that after you ask your dog to do something, count to 5 while you wait for his response. This allows the dog to process what you have asked him to do and respond. Also, when your dog does something exactly as requested, reward him well and end your training session on that perfect note. Practice this behavior for a few sessions before you move onto the next step).
• Swallow your human pride and consider abandoning an exercise that repeatedly frustrates your dog (and you). Try something else.
Like us, dogs are better at learning when they enjoy the process, and they’ll enjoy it much more if they have the opportunity to succeed (i.e.: are positively reinforced).** If our dogs seem overwhelmed or apathetic, the responsibility is entirely ours to find a solution – and there almost always is one.”
If you find yourself uncertain as to how to proceed with your training, give me a call! I offer group and private lessons which can help you and your pooch get back into your training groove.
*Operant conditioning:operant conditioning is a fancy way of saying learning things through consequences, both good and bad. (Think Skinner). For example, a dog sits and gets a treat, he learns to sit more. If he is punished for leaving the yard by an electric shock, he learns to stay away from the edge of the yard.
**Positive reinforcer: Treats. The biscuit you give to Fido for sitting is a positive reinforcer. (See Set you and your dog up for success for ideas of how to use rewards and NILIF for more information on reinforcers). Also, know what your dog loves and use it as reward. This may include food, play, petting, access to other dogs, a car ride, etc. Make a list of 5 things your dog loves and post it on your refrigerator as a reminder of what you can use to creatively reinforce desired behaviors.
*** I have written a lot about body language and stress signals. See Stress: signals, management & warning signs for more information.
I have mentioned the Whole Dog Journal (WDJ)* in several posts, and I have also written a fair amount about stress signals and learning to understand when your dog is asking for your help to manage a situation. I get the WDJ’s “Tip of the Week” and this week’s was an excerpt from the book, Decoding Your Dog from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Edited by Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB and John Ciribassi DVM, DACVB, with Steve Dale.** The excerpt suggests six steps to better understand and communicate with your dog.
Here is the excerpt. The parts that I wish to emphasize are in italics. I have also added photos of mine to better illustrate the body language listed.
These six steps and the following guide will help you to “speak dog” and understand your dog’s body language.
1. Learn their language.
2. Listen with our eyes.
3. Use cues that work for dogs.
4. Avoid miscommunication traps.
5. Teach a common language.
6. Have realistic expectations.
The goal is not to learn our dogs’ language so that we can “speak dog” back to them; that just won’t work. But we can use a knowledge of canine language to better understand our dogs’ emotional states and predict what they might do next.
• Remember to look at the entire dog, not just one body part or a single vocalization, and to also look at the situation to get an accurate read of the dog’s emotional state.
• Dogs understand some words, but they can’t understand a full conversation. Gestures and body language are clearer ways to communicate with dogs. Clear communication takes attention and effort, but is well worth it!
• Not every dog can succeed in every situation. Watch your dog for signs of anxiety or aggression and change the circumstances so that the dog doesn’t get overwhelmed.
• If something seems like it’s about to happen, step in. Either remove the dog from the situation or change what’s happening.
Canine Body Language
-Unwavering, fixed stare: challenge, threat, confident
-Casual gaze: calm
-Averted gaze: deference
-Pupils dilated (big, wide): fear
-Wide-eyed (whites of the eyes are visible): fear
-Quick, darting eyes: fear
-Relaxed, neutral position: calm
-Forward, pricked: alert, attentive, or aggressive
-Ears pinned back: fear, defensive
-Panting: Hot, anxious or excited
-Lip Licking, tongue flicking: anxious
-Yawn: tired or anxious
-Snarl (lip curled, showing teeth): aggressive
-Growl: aggressive, or playful
-Bark: reactive, excited, playful, aggressive, or anxious
-Up, still: alert
-Up with fast wag: excited
-Neutral, relaxed position: calm
-Down, tucked: fear, anxious, or submissive
-Stiff-wagging or still and high: agitated, excited, and perhaps unfriendly
-Soft, relaxed: calm
-Tense, stiff: alert or aggressive
-Hackles up: alert or aggressive
-Rolling over: submissive
Decoding Your Dog can be purchased at Whole Dog Journal, Dogwise, or Amazon (where it is also available in Kindle format). Learning to better communicate with your dog will not only improve the training and management of your pup, but will dramatically enhance the relationship with your canine best friend.
*To see the posts that I mention the WDJ go to: http://apositiveconnection.com/?s=whole+dog+journal
**Dr. Meghan Herron, veterinary animal behaviorist at OSU has a chapter in the book. I mention Dr. Herron in several of my blogs. To find these posts go to: http://apositiveconnection.com/?s=Herron
With the opening bell of Halloween behind us, the holiday season is underway! Thanksgiving is looming around the corner and our dogs may or may not be ready for the onslaught of activity that is the end of the year. I have written several columns about preparing your dog to have a jolly holiday, but here are some reminders (as well as links to those columns) of what you can do to make this merry for everyone.
- Make sure your dog knows sit! “A dog that is sitting is not jumping on Grandma, chasing the grandkids, or running joyfully through the house announcing the visitors. Practice sit everywhere and at all times of the day or night. (50+ sits a day is not over doing it, really.) The more times and places your dog sits, the more it becomes his default behavior and one that he is likely to do when in doubt about the busyness around him.
- Know your dog’s stress signals! “One common stressful scenario is staged photo shoots…Think carefully about how you arrange the family photos. If your dog goes from open mouthed to close mouthed, wiggly to barely moving, looking at you to avoiding eye contact, he is telling you that this is not comfortable for him. Your best bet is to give him more space, especially around his head and face. Also give him several tasty treats throughout the photo session and have someone dedicated to be his private treat dispenser so that he has one person to focus on. If there are loud children, sudden movements, or other distractions that un-nerve your dog, give him a treat every time a kid shouts, runs, or otherwise acts in an erratic fashion.”
Exercise your dog! Getting Fido out for a good romp before the guests arrive (or before you leave to go to Grandma’s house) will help him to be the well-mannered dog you know is in there somewhere. And by exercise, I mean taking him to run in a field, chase balls till he drops, and generally be active for at least 45 minutes. Then, when he gets back to the house, a stuffed Kong and long nap are not only in order, but welcomed!” (See also “Fun”nel of Activity! for a detailed strategy for taking Fido from crazed to calm.)
- Food Management: human and canine. One food strategy to keep in mind is: “Have dog appropriate treats handy in every room so that you can reward Fido when he is well behaved and to distract him from temptation. For instance, if our pups are lying around providing doggie ambiance, I will drop a treat or two at their noses to let them know that I appreciate their calm demeanors. I will also use a well timed canine cookie to get Bingley to move away from a grandchild’s toy.”
If you are looking for things to keep your pup occupied and out of trouble, or Christmas presents for your favorite canine, here are some things you might consider that will give him mental challenges and/or more fun at mealtime:
- Intelligence toys: There are many food related interactive toys on the market and finding the right one for your dog can be challenging. Bingley is not as interested in the food as he is in the challenge so I look for food toys that require him to puzzle things out a bit, such as the Tug-a-jug, Buster Cube, and Kibble nibble. Buckley loves his Twist and Treat because it rolls and quickly distributes the object of his desire.
- Interactive Food bowls: Our dogs love their puzzle food bowls. Not only does it slow eating (thus helping to prevent bloat in big dogs), but it makes dinnertime challenging and entertaining. I rotate the bowls between all the dogs so that no one knows which bowl is going to appear next, all part of the fun!
- If your dog is a chewer and loves to hunker down with something to gnaw, consider investing in an elk antler for him, or one of Nylabone’s interesting chews (such as a Galileo bone). Check out the Village Pet Market or Bath and Biscuits (both here in Granville) for other interesting toys and treats designed to keep your dog entertained and out of mischief.
Paying attention to the signals your dog is giving you, and providing him with appropriate physical and mental outlets for his energy will help all of you to have the merriest holiday season ever.
This is the lament I often hear from new clients whose dog “refuses” to sit or lie down in class. I do not think they are lying to me. I’m sure that their dog’s behavior is close to perfection at home. But, we are not at home in their kitchen, we are in a new building, with new scents, sights, sounds, flooring, dogs, treats, etc. It’s novel, it’s different, it might just be wonderful, but it is, without a doubt, stressful. And, behavior deteriorates under stress.
For example, imagine that you love singing and have practiced your favorite song throughout the day as you move through your routine. You might have hummed it in the grocery store, sang it loud during your morning commute, or cooed it while you made dinner. As many times as you have “rehearsed” it, you have not sung it out loud, in a new place in front of several people you do not know.
Now, imagine you walk into the gym for step class and your teacher asks you to sing in front of everyone, right now! She might even give you a free class if you sing immediately. Can you do it? If you can, is it as smooth and flawless as it is in your car? Probably not. You may be able to sing it, but I would bet you feel a certain amount of pressure or stress. So does your dog when you demand he Sit! Down! Come! in class, or anywhere that is foreign to him or he is uncomfortable, uncertain, or even excited.
Does this mean that you can never ask (and therefore expect) your dog to sit/down/stay etc., anywhere but in front of you by the refrigerator? No, it does not. But it does mean that you need to:
Recognize when it might be stressful or difficult for Rex to perform. New places, new dogs, new people, a walk, a new or crowded sidewalk, a fire truck, rain, high winds, spilled ice cream, all kinds of things can be exciting, distracting, or stressful for your dog. If you ask him to sit and he doesn’t, it might not be “stubbornness.” It could be that he really, truly can’t do it because it is just too hard right now. You can get him to be more responsive under a wider variety of circumstances by doing the following:
Practice desired behaviors in a variety of places, with various distractions so that, for instance, Rex learns that “Sit!” means he puts his bottom on the ground. I encourage my students to practice new behaviors (such as sit or down) in places with few distractions (such as the kitchen) and then practice in all the rooms in the house where your dog is allowed. When Rex is reliably sitting in low distraction areas, add some challenges. Go outside to the least distracting place near your house (e.g. the driveway, back patio, front porch) and practice sitting there. Don’t expect Rex to plunk down his bottom as quickly as he does inside. Ask him to sit and then wait (count to 5) and let him process the request. Do not repeat the command! Give him a chance to figure out what is expected of him. When he does sit, say “Good dog!” and give him a treat. Repeat this 5-10 times (moving a bit if needed to get his bottom back off the ground).
Lower your expectations of Rex in new environments. If he doesn’t sit the first time you ask him to do so in a new environment, even after a count of 5, then make it easier for him. Put a treat right at his nose and slowly move your hand over his head to lure him into a sit. When his bottom hits the ground, give him the treat. Do this 1-3 more times, then try asking him to sit without putting the treat at his nose. Have him sit 5-10 more times in this spot before moving to a more distracting place such as the yard or sidewalk. Ask him to sit in this new spot, and once again, wait for him to respond. Do not expect him to sit as quickly as he just did on the driveway. This is a new spot and that makes it harder to perform on cue. Be patient and reward him when he does respond correctly. Once again, if he cannot comply with your request, then make it easier for him to respond, so that he builds confidence in difficult situations.
Understanding that behavior deteriorates under stress, lowering your expectations in a new or distracting situation, and being patient as he tries to comply, will help your dog succeed, boost his confidence and, perform this behavior in the future. It’s also what friends do for each other.